In meeting a friend for a group project I discovered a delightful café in a community that has seen better days. The Tin Front Café is located at 218 East Eighth Avenue in Homestead, PA. As you walk inside you realize that Homestead is an odd location for such a unique place. Their brochure states:
“Located in the heart of Homestead’s historic shopping district, The Tin Front Café is proud to serve its community and beyond with espresso, food celebrating seasonal bounty, wi-fi access, and space for ideas and conversations to grow.”
Their tagline is, “Coffee*Cuisine*Cocktails*Community.”
I was able to arrange an interview with one of the owners of the café (it’s owned by a married couple so I spoke with the wife, Ellie). She was very kind and willing to share as she told me the story of the café and let me ask her lots of questions.
She told me the café opened this past September. Right next store is a very unique cookware store that is owned by her mother-in-law. I asked her why they chose Homestead and she said her husband’s father (Steven Lewis I believe was his name) grew up in Homestead but back when it was a happening place. He was a founder of a movement called “New Urbanism” (which if you google is really interesting). He did a lot of urban planning work and also taught at Carnegie Mellon University. The basic theory is that the life of a neighborhood depends on its main street and the walkability of that street. That is where community is created. She mentioned how unique Pittsburgh is with each different area having a very distinct community and culture.
She said that in the 1990’s before the waterfront was built, all the stores on the main street in Homestead closed. Her father-in-law, Steven, wanted to work toward revising the main street. He invested in some properties to save them because CVS wanted to buy property on the main street to build a suburban megastore. So Steven bought the properties for cheap, pretty much only owing back taxes, and essentially saved the main street. The major expense to come was in renovating those properties. So that is how the properties were acquired and the reasoning behind acquiring them. She then went on to tell me why she’s here.
She said that when we think about healthy and sustainable communities, a gathering place is important which is why they decided to open a café on the avenue. She had been interested in sustainable eating for a long time. She’s been a vegetarian all her life but got connected to sustainable eating when her friends joined a CSA. She learned how much better food is when there is so much that is good about it, it’s sustainable, and makes people healthier. That is why when it is harvest time she sources all her food for the café from local farmers. This reminded me of a book we read for class called Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed about the importance of food being good, clean and fair. It says:
“We must have the strength to give this economy back to the citizens, because food must be good, clean, and fair. Good, clean and fair. Good, absolutely good – it is not that we are condemned to eat badly! … Clean, because one cannot produce nourishment by straining ecosystems, ruining the air, and destroying biodiversity. Fair, because the citizen must be paid; if we want the young people to stay and return to the land here in our countries they must have dignity and fulfillment. They must be valued.”
-Pg 17 of Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed
I agree, food is so much more enjoyable when we know that there is so much that is good about it and we can enjoy it without worrying that it is bad, unclean, or unfair.
I asked her about the vegetarian menu and she said (besides the fact that she is a vegetarian) its because when they opened in September she got all her ingredients from farmers markets and that dictated the cuisine she made so the menu was constantly changing. In the winter the menu has been more constant because there is less produce available. She said she is happy that spring is coming and she will be able to source locally again.
When someone says a vegetarian menu I immediately think that it will not appeal to me as someone who isn’t a vegetarian. Honestly, though her recipes are so tantalizing that it didn’t bother me at all, I wouldn’t have even noticed if my friend hadn’t pointed it out. Some sample dishes include brie & apple French toast, breaded eggplant w/ marinara, provolone and basil sandwich, butternut squash lasagna with basil béchamel sauce, just to name a few. In addition, they have all kinds of coffee, tea, baked goods, wine, beer, and cocktails. You can see why I wasn’t turned off by it being a vegetarian menu since all the dishes look so incredible!
All the recipes are her own too. She said the menu now is the steady recipes that she’s been making for a long time. Once farmers markets start up again she will experiment and cook with what’s available. This also reminded me of something from Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed because it talks about how when it comes to food we want what we want when we want it. Exotic foods from far away like oranges for example become everyday items. We don’t eat locally or what is in season because we have this attitude that says we can eat what we want when we want it. This is not sustainable. I like how she changes her menu with what is available and tries hard to buy locally as much as possible and cook according to the season.
So I finally asked why it is called the Tin Front Café. She explained that the front is made of pressed tin and it is one of the last buildings of pressed tin in Allegheny County. The pressed tin was originally put up as a cosmetic repair because of fire damage and when they took over they renovated it to historical standards instead of replacing it. In fact they used a lot of green building practices and are all about reusing. Just about every piece of furniture in the café has a story and most of it is from places that had shut down but that used to be very important to the community in homestead. For instance, all the tables and chairs came from a moose lodge in Homestead that had shut down, the bar is from an old Homestead bar that used to be really popular and also shut down. All the different pieces of furniture are from important community places that aren’t here anymore. I thought that was a really cool aspect since community and rebuilding community in Homestead is what the café is all about. The café has incorporated parts of Homestead’s past in hopes of rebuilding the community in the future.
So I think I found a new favorite study spot. This is a place you can go and feel good about it because you know you can feel good about the food you are eating, the cause it supports, and the people you are buying from. It left me thinking of how a restructuring of our food system is possible when you really make the effort. I was inspired by Ellie in my own cooking and shopping to buy local and cook with what is in season. Places like this are all about the local community which inspired me to support and learn about the community I live in. It also left me thinking about how much food is connected to community, both in the way that it brings people together and in the way that buying it in a certain way can support the local community. So if you are ever in Homestead and get a chance I highly recommend dropping by the Tin Front Café. But don’t just drop in, eat, enjoy, ask questions, and hear the story and ideas behind it all.